Which Research Sources Should You Use, Part 2?

Last week, I delved into using resources on the job, focusing primarily on numbers of sources you might use on a given work assignment. Today, I’ll discuss the actual types of research sources you’re most likely to encounter on the job. I’ve divided these sources into “passive” and “active,” akin to sensors. Passive sensors are what you use to absorb information that’s around you, active sensors require you to send out some sort of active energy to learn more.

Passive Sources

  • Websites: These can include company internet and intranet sites, including search engines. Which one(s) you use depend on the content and context of what you’re writing. These are useful when you are looking for questions of fact.
  • Marketing Materials: These include brochures, commercials, banners, billboards, signs, business cards, web ad banners, and other collateral produced by your organization to get their messages out to the public. These are useful when you need to know what words the org uses to present or sell its products, services, or image to the world.
  • Internal Documents: These can include existing plans, process manuals, reports, memos, etc. Use determined by audience, situation, and intended outcome.
  • Books: I maintain a pretty large personal library because I never know when I’m going to need to cite a fact, description, anecdote, quotation, or other piece of information from a well-known, reliable, and usually well-researched source.
  • Government Publications: These are really a subset of the websites and even books. Government publications are used when you need to cite specific laws, regulations, ordinances, or standards. Note that these can exist at the national, state/provincial, or municipal level.

Active Sources

  • Interviews: These can take a couple of forms. Sometimes the “interview” comprises your leader dictating to you what they want; but even in those situations you will usually have a question or two. Subject-matter expert (SME) interviews should be used sparingly. As I’ve noted elsewhere, SMEs should be asked about unusual situations or “what if” scenarios rather than questions of fact (unless it’s a very detailed or sensitive detail only they are likely to know). The best way to make use of your time with a SME is to read up as much as you can on your topic, cover the basics, and then seek out expert insight for details or situations not covered in a general description of a product or process. SMEs have situational knowledge that adds value to your work, but again: don’t contact them unless you have to (e.g., you need a direct quotation from someone with authority on a specific topic).
  • Meeting Minutes: This might seem like a “passive” item because you’re mostly writing down what other people are saying, but you have it in your ability to ask questions. Just be judicious about interrupting, especially if you’re at a meeting you do not usually attend.

I could get into more detail about which sources I use, but your needs will vary based on your position, organization, and task.

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About Bart Leahy

Freelance Technical Writer, Science Cheerleader Event & Membership Director, and an all-around nice guy. Here to help.
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